“Sometimes Revolutionary”: Miriam Toews, Women Talking

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Ona’s eyes have become big. She appears to be in a reverie, or enraptured. This is the beginning of a new era, she says. This is our manifesto . . .

What’s a manifesto? asks Autje again.

The other women frown. They look at Ona, who smiles. I’m not entirely sure, she says, but I believe it is a statement of some kind. A guide.

Then Ona looks at me and asks, Well?

Yes, I agree, it’s a statement. A statement of intent. Sometimes revolutionary.

Agata and Greta exchange alarmed glances.

No, no August, says Agata, it cannot be revolutionary. We are not revolutionaries. We are simple women. We are mothers. Grandmothers.

Women Talking is itself a kind of manifesto, I suppose, though it does not read like a statement of intent so much as an inquiry, almost an autopsy. The book is at once ruthlessly specific (what should these women, who have been abused, tortured, raped, silenced, rendered extraneous to the meaning of ther own community, do?) and almost shockingly expansive: what should (or can) we all do, once we recognize how deep and entangling the world’s systemic injustices are? In this respect Women Talking reminded me (as it did Dorian) of Woolf’s Three Guineas as I read it, especially as the possible outcomes the women have been debating coalesce into a plan. “We can best help you to prevent war,” Woolf concludes, “not by joining your society but by remaining outside your society but in cooperation with its aim.”

For Toews’s women, the choice is more literal, but the problem they seek to solve is very much the same: how is it possible to belong to a corrupt society without being complicit? “How can we enter the professions and yet remain civilized human beings,” asks Woolf. How can we stay with these men and remain safe and true to our faith, wonder the women:

Imagine the response of the men, upon being asked to leave the colony. What reason would be given them?

Everything  we’ve discussed, says Ona. That to uphold the charter of our faith we must engage in pacifism, in love and forgiveness. That to be near these men hardens our hearts towards them and generates feelings of hatred and violence. That if we are to continue (or return to) being Good Mennonites, we must separate the men from the women until we can discover (or rediscover) our righteous path.

There are important differences, of course. For Woolf, for instance, freedom, not faith, is the measure of what is right. But Peters, the bishop of Toews’s semi-fictional Molotschna colony, matches up well to Woolf’s “figure of a man”:

some say, others deny, that he is Man himself, the quintessence of virility, the perfect type of which all the others are imperfect adumbrations. He is a man certainly. His eyes are glazed; his eyes glare. His body, which is braced in an unnatural position, is tightly cased in a uniform. Upon the breast of that uniform are sewn several medals and other mystic symbols. His hand is upon a sword. He is called in German and Italian Führer or Duce; in our own language Tyrant or Dictator. And behind him like ruined houses and dead bodies–men, women and children.

toews2“We’re not members of Molotschna,” Salome bursts out at one point, challenged to consider whether the women owe the imprisoned men any loyalty because they belong to the same colony.

We’re not members! she repeats. We are the women of Molotschna. The entire colony of Molotschna is built on the foundation of patriarchy (translator’s note: Salome didn’t use the word ‘patriarchy’ . . . ) where the women live out their days as mute, submissive, and obedient servants. Animals. Fourteen-year-old boys are expected to give us orders, to determine our fates . . .

Ona makes this analysis more abstract:

Peters said these men are evil, the perpetrators, but that’s not true. It’s the quest for power, on the part of Peters and the elders and on the part of the founders of Molotschna, that is responsible for these attacks, because in their quest for power, they needed to have those they’d have power over, and those people are us.

I thought it was interesting that Toews kept Peters basically off stage: he lurks in the margins of the novel’s (in)action, though the evil he perpetrates and perpetuates through his perversion of religious leadership is at the center of the novel’s biggest moral questions–as well as being the source of August’s own personal tragedy. This strategy keeps the women centered, and also keeps their resistance impersonal: they seek a solution to what Peters represents and enforces, not to take action against him individually.

toews3Peters’s literal absence, and the absence of most of the other men of the colony, is what creates the space in which these women can talk, and that itself is one of the novel’s critical interventions. For most of their lives these women have not been in control of their own stories; their illiteracy has also prevented them from knowing first-hand the terms on which they have understood and lived their lives. “My point, says Salome,”

is that by leaving, we are not necessarily disobeying the men according to the Bible, because we, the women, do now know exactly what is in the Bible, being unable to read it. Furthermore, the only reason why we feel we need to submit to our husbands is because our husbands have told us that the Bible decrees it. . . .

The issue, continues Salome . . . is the male interpretation of the Bible and how that has been ‘handed down’ to us.

Here, I was reminded of Anne Elliot’s trenchant comments in Persuasion: “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.”

As the women debate what they think they know about their faith, August remarks “Perhaps it is the first time the women of Molotschna have interpreted the word of God for themselves” — one of many moments in the novel when his own role as scribe and interpreter is highlighted. That they need and trust him to write down their talk marks him initially as an ally. Over the course of the debates, however, we see that this assumption is too simple, both about how the women perceive him and about the purpose of his presence in the hayloft, which turns out to be less about what he can do for the women and more about what they (and Ona in particular) can do for him. “I asked her what good the minutes would do her and the other women if they were unable to read them,” August recalls; “Maybe there was no reason for the women to have minutes they couldn’t read. The purpose, all along, was for me to take them.” He is not the women’s savior; they do not actually need him to make sense of either their traumatic experiences or the dilemma they face in choosing between leaving for the unknown and remaining in a community which has failed them but is nonetheless made up of people they love.

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Photo credit: King’s Coop Bookstore, Twitter

There’s a lot more that could be said about Women Talking; the best discussion I’ve read of its political and thematic implications is Lili Loofbourow’s in the New York Review of Books. Thought-provoking as the novel definitely is (and I know I will keep thinking about it), though, I’m uncertain at this point whether it is as artistically successful as it is conceptually rich. I found it an oddly flat book, stylistically: not just plain, in a way suited to the blunt and often awkward discourse of the characters, but lacking emotion in a way that I find (usually disappointingly) typical of a lot of contemporary fiction. There’s some reason for it here, because of August’s self-consciousness as a narrator and maybe also because the traumas that necessitate the women’s conversation are themselves almost intolerable to contemplate. There are emotional outbursts, and they do add some welcome drama–but having said that, there was ultimately something impressive about the women’s desire to act out of reason and principle rather than anger, hate, or sorrow. At the end, too, after pages of so little actually seeming to happen, there’s a surprising sense of loss when we are left behind with August. “There’s no plot,” Agata says when they are interrupted by the suspicious (but fortunately senile and thus unthreatening) Ernie Thiessen, whose hayloft they have appropriated for their meetings; “we’re only women talking.” That describes the novel perfectly, and it doesn’t sound like much–but it turns out to be a lot. Maybe it’s even revolutionary.

Steps in the Dark: Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows

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we had to go back and retrace our steps in the dark which I suppose is the meaning of life.

Miriam Toews’s conspicuously autobiographical novel All My Puny Sorrows is the story of two sisters, Elfrieda and Yolandi — from a Mennonite community, like Toews, and with a father who, like Toews’s, committed suicide. Elfrieda, like Toews’s sister, is a pianist; the novel is narrated by Yolandi, who (like Toews) has dealt for much of her life with  her sister’s depression and suicide attempts. Because Yoli’s perspective necessarily dominates, we never understand Elf’s feelings as clearly as we do Yoli’s rage and grief and love and baffled desperation. But this seems right in any case, since Elf’s point of view and feelings are, almost by definition, not neatly explicable: if they were, she wouldn’t be so tormented, not to mention so frequently hospitalized, medicated, and restrained.

Yoli is dedicated to saving Elfrieda from her “weariness of life.” But does saving Elf mean keeping her alive or letting her die — or even helping her find a way to die? Much of the novel turns on Yoli’s deliberations about whether and how she might do the latter: sneaking away to Mexico for a final toxic cocktail by the beach, or going boldly to Switzerland, where “mentally ill people … have the same rights as anybody else who wants to die.” “The core of the argument for [suicide],” Yoli explains to a friend, “is maximizing individual autonomy and minimizing human suffering,” but she herself remains irresolute about whether it’s better for Elf to live or die, or about whose choice that is to make, and ultimately she is saved from decisive action by the unwitting intervention of other characters. The ending hints that Yoli would have decided for Switzerland, but it’s suggestive, not definitive: it may be that she is just wishfully comparing the orderly Swiss process she imagines to the jarring reality.

Toews does Yoli’s voice well: by the end I definitely felt as if I’d been up close and personal with her trauma. The novel is not all crisis all the time, though: something else Toews does well is mix in humor, sometimes to nicely ironic effect — which can certainly happen when we’re dealing with sad or scary things in real life too. The family members and friends are vivid and lifelike, with their eccentricities and tensions and intertwined histories, and there’s tenderness, too, along with the laughter, as they do their best, as we all must, to get from one day to the next. But the colloquial first-person narration was ultimately too chatty and artless for me: Yoli / Toews is neither a great writer nor a great thinker, so not only is the prose mostly quite pedestrian but the novel does not expand beyond Yoli and Elf to explore the abstract problem their conflict dramatizes. To me, the novel ended up feeling small, even confined, as a result, even though it deals with some of the biggest questions there are. I would have liked to learn something, to have been offered some illumination, something to take away from the novel beyond description at the level of “this is what it felt like for me” — and while “for me” officially means “me, Yoli,” it’s hard not to think it also means “me, Miriam.” There’s a pleasing humility in sticking so close to home, and so close to one’s own heart, but there’s also something unambitious, even unimaginative, about it. Toews does a good job at “write what you know,” but All My Puny Sorrows also shows the limitations of that precept: as a reader, you get to know her, but not a lot else.

But why isn’t that enough? I realize that I am criticizing Toews not for failing at what she set out to do (because she doesn’t) but for not setting out to do something different — something less personal but broader and more ambitiously philosophical, something less intimate and colloquial and more stylish. (One of my marginal notes asks whether coming up with good one-liners really counts as having a style. She does get in some good ones: as a long-time user of the product, I chuckled especially at her observation that Vaseline Intensive Care lotion has been renamed “Vaseline Intensive Rescue lotion,” “to reflect the emergency atmosphere of current life on earth.”) I’ve been struggling for a couple of days to explain (or maybe justify) my lack of enthusiasm, especially when there are other small-scale novels I like very much — most of Anne Tyler’s, for example.

It’s possible that my dissatisfaction with All My Puny Sorrows is a side-effect of reading it right after King Hereafter, which is not just large in its scope but deep in its inquiries, not to mention challenging, and thus exhilarating, to read. (For a book about suicide, All My Puny Sorrows really skips right along.) But I think that another reason for my impatience is, a bit paradoxically, that the situation of the novel is in some ways quite familiar to me. For years a very close friend of mine struggled with serious and suicidal depression, so Toews’s novel brought back a lot of memories, of anxious waiting, of difficult, sometimes frantic, phone calls, and of many, many hospital visits — during all of which I had no power or responsibility except just to be there as much as I could and keep on being her friend. Because I was not family, I had less say and, in a way, less at stake than Yoli does in Elf’s care and future. It was an intense and pretty challenging experience nonetheless, and the novel’s focus on the supporter’s perspective rather than the patient’s had a particular resonance for me.

Shouldn’t that personal connection have made All My Puny Sorrows more, not less, meaningful to me, though? Why, with that experience of my own to think back on, did I find myself resisting Toews’s novel rather than appreciating it all the more? My theory is that it’s because her story is precisely not mine, and so the similarities between them only become really interesting if we go to a higher level of abstraction. She can tell her story, and I can tell mine (though I decided not to do so in more detail here, since in so many ways it is someone else’s story more than mine — which for me raises further questions about Toews’s strategy of making art out of her sister’s death). Unless there’s more to it than that, though, the result is just an accumulation of anecdotes. I don’t deliberately seek out literature that I expect to reflect my own life back at me, but because in this case I did find myself prompted to retrace my steps through some very dark territory indeed, I would have liked to do so in the company of someone who had more to say about the meaning of it all than I can manage on my own.

I have an uneasy feeling that I’m selling All My Puny Sorrows short. Lots of people have really, really liked it — including readers whose judgment I greatly respect. I’m not even sure that I’ve figured out my own reaction: all I know is that I wanted something from it that I didn’t get. I look forward to discussing it with my book club tomorrow night. At this point my favorite thing about the novel is that it included Philip Larkin’s “Days,” which inspired me to spend a sunny hour on the deck yesterday reading through his collected poems.